Revisiting Torchwood: what is its legacy?

Feature Andrew Blair
15 Jan 2013 - 08:58

It's the last in our Revisiting Torchwood series, so Andrew considers what legacy the show has left TV sci-fi...

Torchwood moved from BBC Three, to BBC Two, to BBC One. Even Miracle Day (it wasn't miraculous, and it didn't last a day) performed well. For a British sci-fi show in recent years, this is almost unheard of. 

What legacy has Torchwood left behind? Its success says a lot about the means and methods of television. Whatever genres it straddles, whatever your opinion of it, Torchwood is a rare success for post-watershed British sci-fi. Both luck and skill played their part in this. 

Of the other successes, Black Mirror's opening salvo was excellent speculative fiction, and its return will hopefully build on this. The other successful shows occupying similar ground and longevity to Torchwood are Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes, Being Human, and Misfits. These mix fantasy elements with another genre, meaning Torchwood's somewhat derivative blend of sci-fi and paranormal investigation stood out. 

Of course, you could argue that Torchwood isn't really science-fiction, but you could also staple your eyes to Yeovil and declare all trees your wife. 

Torchwood certainly has the tropes of science-fiction (aliens, spaceships, shiny metal thingymajigs), but then Doctor Who mostly uses these as dressing to a story rather than the crux. The science in the post-2005 Doctor Who universe doesn't bother to come up with 'reversing the polarity' style pseudo-science to cover its resolutions, opting for one-line-explanations with minimal technobabble (the outcome is much the same). It also took its time in easing the viewer in with a more restrained initial approach. Hard-sci-fi is not easy to make into a popular film, let alone television series. Prose is a natural home for it, without constraints of time and budget. 

What this demonstrates is that popular science-fiction is more obviously merging with other genres. It always has (Star Wars is a matinee cowboy film with metal horses), but now people are being entertained by stories that don't contain robots or apocalypses or lasers, yet still contain science-fiction ideas and concepts. If you absolutely have to draw a distinction between science-fiction and fantasy, it's meant to be based on scientific plausibility based on recently postulated theories, but you don't hear cries of 'Fie! This be not science!' (English language alternatives are available) every time fiction allows matter from energy above a subatomic level. 

Also - and perhaps more damningly if you're a Doctor Who fan - the idea for Time and the Rani is came from  Princeton research into strange matter, some of which makes it into dialogue. Compare this with the approach of Rian Johnson's approach to time-travel for Looper: coming up with a coherent system to explain the mechanics, and then not mentioning it once during the film. The focus is on characters, not exposition. 

Increasingly we are seeing writers not giving a toss whether something explains every theory in detail or ostentatiously crosses genre boundaries. It's a very blurry, subjective dividing line anyway, and Torchwood has helped to muddy things further. 

Torchwood and Doctor Who are reflective of a general trend for television: science-fiction is either expanding its range or being diluted, depending on your point of view. There have not been many attempts to make a harder-sci-fi series; we have seen no space operas for years, and an adaptation of Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle (with Ridley Scott producing) has lain dormant since its announcement in 2010, with no new information released since. 

When the BBC tries to make more traditional sci-fi, or post-apocalyptic drama, we get Outcasts and Survivors, programmes that echo the refrain 'these shows are about people' (well, what else were they going to be about?) without the strength of characterisation of, say, Russell T. Davies' Doctor Who. Both shows were based on good concepts, but Survivors was patchy and Outcasts felt like a parody of bad sci-fi. It's especially irritating that TV hasn't explored similar territory since, because it isn't the genre's fault these shows weren't good enough. Outcasts certainly looked the part, even if it didn't endear itself to the audience with its story (or characters, or dialogue, or...). Similarly, the problem with Miracle Day wasn't that the villains were humans, it's that they weren't sufficiently interesting humans. Dull aliens are still dull. 

We're a long way from Blake's 7 going out at 7.15pm on a Monday for four series. It would be a major challenge to bring it back successfully on the BBC now, hence Syfy looking to it as potentially another Battlestar Galactica. However, a show about a contemporary prisoner disappearing into another dimension, on the other hand, might well have a chance in the UK (this is me abandoning subtlety in my quest for an adaptation of Mazeworld). 

The other important legacy of Torchwood is that it was the first Doctor Who spinoff since K9 and Company, and it performed slightly better. While the first series is not the most adulated, it was a step-up (alright, sideways) from straight-to-video Zygon erotica. 

This success was hard to predict from its early episodes. Strong viewing figures and a mixed critical reception ensued, but it was fortunate in its timing, pre-budget tightening. Speculation time: if Torchwood had started at the time of The Fades, would it have been given a second series? While it lacked the critical acclaim of the latter it brought in nearly double the viewing figures (and with the right demographic, apparently). Torchwood moved to BBC 2 for its second series, The Fades did not. 

Torchwood had the benefit of being a spin-off show with a ready-made audience, an extension of a juggernaut. Severed from Doctor Who, how would it have fared? Now there's a fun piece of conjecture. Equally, what this demonstrates is the benefit of giving a series a chance to grow and develop. Isolated from its parent, the possibility of Torchwood not lasting beyond a series would have deprived us of series two and Children of Earth. Given three seasons, maybe Outcasts could have produced something brilliant. 

It shouldn't have to be said, but TV isn't entirely about art at the end of the day. If a show can be replaced by something that will gain more viewers and sell more DVDs, it probably will be. Finances being what they are, risks will be seldom taken (hence sparse pickings for genre fans). We may have to hope that cinema takes up the slack (Pacific Rim, Gravity, Elysium and Ender's Game all bode well), influencing tastes back towards parity. 

In the meantime, while we wait, we'll always have Torchwood.

Read more of Andrew's Revisiting Torchwood series, here.

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